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Diaz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 18, 2018

BLANCA R. DIAZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          RULING RE: MOTION TO REVERSE THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC. NO. 22) & MOTION TO AFFIRM THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER (DOC. NO. 23)

          JANET C. HALL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Blanca R. Diaz (“Diaz”) brings this appeal under section 405(g) of title 42 of the United States Code from the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which denied her application for Title II disability insurance benefits. See generally Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). Diaz seeks either reversal or remand of the Decision rendered by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Alexander Peter Borré, which affirmed the Commissioner's denial. See Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (“Mot. to Reverse”) (Doc. No. 22); see also Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 22-2) at 25. The Commissioner cross-moves for an order affirming the ALJ's Decision. See Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (“Mot. to Affirm”) (Doc. No. 23).

         For the reasons set forth below, Diaz's Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 22) is GRANTED. The Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (Doc. No. 23) is DENIED.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Diaz applied for disability insurance benefits on October 30, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 24, 2013. See Plaintiff's Proposed Statement of Facts (“Pl.'s Statement of Facts”) (Doc. No. 22-1) at 1; Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. No. 23-1) at 2 (adopting the procedural history as outlined in Plaintiff's Statement of Facts). The Commissioner denied Diaz's application initially on January 28, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on September 18, 2014. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 1. Diaz requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on January 19, 2016. See Id. Diaz was represented by counsel at the hearing, and she testified through a translator. See Certified Transcript of Record (“R.”) (Doc. Nos. 14-1-14-10) at 35. John Matzilevich, a vocational expert, also testified before the ALJ by telephone, over the objection of Diaz's attorney. See id. at 35-36.

         On February 8, 2016, ALJ Borré issued an unfavorable decision for Diaz, affirming the Commissioner's denial. See id. at 9. Specifically, he found that Diaz had two severe impairments, rheumatoid arthritis and major depressive disorder without psychotic features. See id. at 18. However, he concluded that Diaz's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairment. See id. The ALJ further determined that Diaz had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following additional limitations: she could (1) occasionally climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, and stairs; (2) occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) frequently reach overhead and finger bilaterally; and (3) perform simple and repetitive tasks in an environment with no public contact and only occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. See id. at 20. On the basis of vocational expert Matzilevich's testimony and Diaz's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that Diaz was not disabled because there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Diaz could perform. See id. at 25.

         Diaz requested review of the ALJ's Decision by the Appeals Council. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 2. On March 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request, making ALJ Borré's Decision final and reviewable by this court. See id. Diaz then filed this appeal in federal court on April 10, 2017. See Compl. at 1.

         III. RELEVANT BACKGROUND[1]

         The court assumes the parties' familiarity with the evidence of Record, and it will therefore only briefly describe the facts relevant to this opinion.

         Diaz was born on November 26, 1967. See R. at 38. From 1991 to 2013, Diaz worked at a nursing home, first in the laundry department and later as a recreational therapist assisting patients with Alzheimer's disease. See id. at 41-42, 243-245. Diaz testified that arthritis and depression have prevented her from working since 2013. See id. at 43.

         Diaz's treating physicians have diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis and major depressive disorder. See id. at 410, 730. Dr. Nicholas Formica (“Dr. Formica”), a rheumatologist at Hartford Health Care Medical Group, has treated Diaz's arthritis since at least as early as March 12, 2013. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 2. Dr. Victor Tirado (“Dr. Tirado”), a psychiatrist, has treated her depression since at least as early as May 31, 2013. See id. at 3. The record also contains (1) notes from Ms. Tina Robbins (“PA Robbins”), a physician's assistant at Solano Medical Group who conducted several examinations of Diaz; and (2) notes from Dr. Robert Belniak (“Dr. Belniak”), who saw Diaz once in December 2015. See id. at 2, 4, 7, 13, 20.

         Dr. Formica completed a medical source statement for Diaz on September 12, 2014. See id. at 21. In this medical opinion, he stated that Diaz suffered from several medical impairments, including rheumatoid arthritis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and pain in her cervical spine and lumbar spine. See id. at 410. As clinical evidence of these impairments, he noted that Diaz had stiffness, swelling, fluid, pain, and tenderness in her joints; redness and warmth in and around her joints; limited and decreased range of motion in her joints, particularly with respect to her knees, wrists, cervical spine, and shoulders; spasm in her cervical and lumbar spine; fatigue, malaise, and muscle weakness; and numbness and tingling in her hands. See id. Dr. Formica further indicated that Diaz had joint deformity, reduced grip strength, trigger points, and a positive straight leg raising test. See id. at 411. He opined, inter alia, that Diaz could not stand for more than 30 minutes at a time due to swollen knee and ankle joints; that she could not sit for more than 1 hour at a time due to cervical spine pain and lumbar spine pain; and that she must lie down for at least 30 minutes every three hours. See id. at 412-413. He also opined that Diaz was severely limited in her ability to, inter alia, reach overhead, finger, push, pull, lift, bend, squat, and kneel. See id. at 413-415.

         Dr. Tirado completed two medical source statements on Diaz's mental health, one in September 2014 and another in December 2015. See Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 24, 25. In these statements, he listed a variety of symptoms caused by Diaz's depression, including anhedonia, decreased energy, difficulty thinking or concentrating, easy distractibility, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, persistent disturbances of mood or affect, and memory impairment. See R. at 418-491, 730. He further opined that Diaz's mental health impairments significantly limited her ability to function, including by impairing her ability to remember work-like procedures, to understand and remember instructions, to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, to make simple work-related decisions, to interact appropriately with the general public, to get along with coworkers, and to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. See id. at 420-422, 731-732. While noting that Diaz's mental impairments would likely produce both “good days” and “bad days, ” Dr. Tirado estimated that Diaz would miss work more than 3 times a month as a result of her depressive disorder. See id. at 422.

         Two state agency medical consultants, Dr. Maria Lorenzo (“Dr. Lorenzo”) and Dr. Thomas Hill (“Dr. Hill”), came to different conclusions about the severity of Diaz's limitations. See Def.'s Mem. at 8, 9. These two medical consultants did not personally examine Diaz. See id.; see also R. at 22, 23. Instead, they based their opinions primarily on the treating notes from Dr. Formica and Dr. Tirado and on Diaz's written responses to the activities of daily living questionnaire. See R. at 78-85. On the basis of her review of the paper record, Dr. Lorenzo opined that Diaz could, inter alia, (1) stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; (2) occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; (3) occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and (4) frequently reach overhead with both arms and finger with both hands. See id. at 83, 84. Dr. Hill opined that Diaz's psychologically based symptoms moderately limited her ability to complete a normal workday and workweek, but that she was not significantly limited in, inter alia, (1) carrying out short and simple instructions; (2) maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision; (4) working in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; and (5) making simple work-related decisions. See id. at 85.

         IV. ...


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